With its distinct, sloping head and chestnut hues, the canvasback is one of the most striking waterfowl species, long a favorite of both duck hunters and birders. But the canvasback’s recent history also illustrates the perils, the promises and the continued challenges of migratory bird conservation.
From commercial hunting to wetland loss to drought to water quality degradation, the canvasback has faced its share of setbacks. But its populations have remained relatively stable – a testament to what motivated conservationists can achieve.
Here’s the story of the twists and turns of canvasback conservation.
The Aristocratic Diver
Like many migratory birds, canvasbacks have a mix of habitat needs during different parts of the year. They’re most visible in the fall and winter when they’re in large flocks on large bays and lakes. But they actually nest on prairie potholes, the small wetlands of the Midwest and Canada. One study found that 65 percent of hen canvasbacks nested on wetlands that were one acre or less in size.
Even before human disturbance of wetlands, these small waters were prone to disappearing in dry years. Hen canvasbacks will delay or even skip nesting during drought conditions. As such their populations can experience significant fluctuations even when no other factors are at play.
By summer, canvasbacks begin moving to larger waters in search of food. They’re diving ducks, with large feet for propelling them underwater. They feed on a variety of aquatic plants and invertebrates, and particularly favor wild celery. In fact, the canvasback’s scientific name, Aythya valisineria, derives from that of wild celery, Vallisneria americana. This preferred food also plays a significant role in the canvasback conservation story. More on this in a bit.
As fall approaches, canvasbacks congregate in increasingly larger flocks on larger waterways, like the Mississippi River. They spend winters on even larger waters, like saltwater bays and the Great Lakes. The Chesapeake Bay, historically, was a particularly famous wintering area, with huge canvasback congregations.
The winter flocks have long been what most people associate with canvasbacks, but the small wetlands and rivers are just as important for their conservation.
Hunters and birders alike celebrate the canvasback’s striking appearance, and many written accounts describe the bird as “aristocratic.” But people were initially drawn to canvasbacks not because of their appearance, but because of their taste. Many consider canvasback to be one of the finest game meats. And this nearly led to their demise.
Canvasback, It’s What’s For Dinner
Humans have hunted canvasbacks in North America for a very, very long time. A cave excavation in Nevada found Native American canvasback decoys more than 2,000 years old. The large flocks of birds were a natural bounty that could be harvested year after year.
To European colonists, this bounty seemed endless. And in a familiar story, this proved a mistaken notion. Until the mid-1800s, the hunting was small scale and likely had minimal effects on canvasback populations.
As Ducks Unlimited’s Mark Petrie writes in an excellent essay on commercial waterfowl hunting:
“Prior to the Civil War, the impact of market hunting on continental duck populations was probably small. Duck populations were three to four times larger than they are today and sport hunting was almost nonexistent. Most market hunters were limited to black-powder muzzleloading shotguns and the demand for ducks was localized. That was the farmers’ market era of commercial hunting. After 1865, however, market hunting joined the industrial age, with predictable consequences for waterfowl.”
The industrial-scale hunting was fueled in part by more effective shotguns, but probably an even more important factor was refrigeration. Ducks could now be shipped from remote bays to urban restaurants, where sophisticated consumers loved the taste of canvasback.
The wild celery in the canvasback’s diet imparts a unique flavor, one that apparently sets it apart from other ducks. When countries urbanize, city residents often find wild game to either be nostalgic or an exotic taste. This trend continues to this day in many parts of the world, fueling continued wildlife poaching and commercial hunting.
In the late 1800s, waterfowl and other wild game was often on the menu of the finest city restaurants. Mark Twain listed canvasback as one of the quintessential American foods he missed while traveling in Europe. (This list of 60 foods, by the way, offers a very telling look at what constituted “local food” in Twain’s day. I recommend the book Twain’s Feast by Andrew Beahrs if you’re interested in food history).
We often associate wild game as subsistence food, but canvasback was a luxury item. A pair of canvasbacks would have cost more than $100 in today’s dollars, a dinner for the rich and famous.
Of course, such high prices fueled a market hunting industry. As a boy obsessed with hunting, I was fascinated by the historic Chesapeake Bay hunters and the tactics they employed. They often carved their own decoys, now considered folk art. Some used massive shotguns, called punt guns, that resembled small cannons. These could kill multiple birds with one shot. Others used duck traps to capture the birds, or raised live decoys to lure them into shooting range. Market gunners hunted day and night, killing staggering numbers of birds.
While this may have seemed romantic to an outdoors-loving youngster, the truth is these methods devastated ducks. Since canvasbacks may not nest in dry years, overhunting could quickly devastate the population. By the early 1900s, it was clear that canvasbacks and many other migratory bird species were in trouble.
In 1913, recognizing that waterfowl don’t follow state boundaries, the Weeks-Mclean Act transferred the regulation of waterfowl management from states to the federal government. But, as is also the case with wildlife conservation everywhere, regulations without enforcement make little difference. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed market hunting and provided funding for enforcement.
Recreational hunters had become a significant interest group, and provided a lot of political support for waterfowl conservation – as has remained the case to this day. While market hunting continued after 1918, it began to wane and was no longer a significant factor in waterfowl decline.
But canvasback populations weren’t secure yet. Stopping unregulated killing helped, but the birds still need healthy habitat.
As Go The Wetlands…
Canvasback populations rebounded after market hunting was outlawed, but since the mid-1900s their populations have fluctuated, sometimes dramatically.
In the 1930s, canvasback populations suffered a major decline, due to the drought that caused the Dust Bowl. The drainage of small wetlands in the Midwest led to another decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Some sources estimate the population declined to 500,000 birds at this time, half of what it was in the 1950s. The population has continued to fluctuate, but it has remained around 500,000 birds.
Waterfowl species have benefited from one of the most effective conservation campaigns ever launched. The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (commonly called simply the Duck Stamp), required for all adult waterfowl hunters, has conserved more than 5.3 million acres of wetland habitat. The story of this stamp, conceived by a political cartoonist appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is one of the most remarkable wildlife success stories ever.
The National Wildlife Refuge System has played a critical role in conserving wetland habitat, and many of the refuges were purchased with Duck Stamp proceeds. Ducks Unlimited, supported primarily by duck hunters, is an incredibly effective organization in protecting wetland habitat. The group often partners with The Nature Conservancy on wetland projects. Federal Farm Bill programs protect additional habitat, especially in the prairie pothole region.
While commercial duck hunting almost eliminated canvasbacks, recreational hunting has played a major role in restoring it and other waterfowl species.
But challenges remain for canvasbacks. Loss of wetlands remains a perpetual concern. So does loss of water quality.
Canvasbacks have altered migration routes and wintering areas as some habitat declines and others improve. In the 1950s, more than 250,000 canvasbacks wintered in the Chesapeake Bay. Today, only about 25,000 do. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes, this is due to the well-publicized decline in the bay’s water quality.
This decline in water quality may even affect the canvasback’s legendary taste. Wild celery is also very sensitive to water quality, and it has disappeared from many parts of the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.
“Let’s just admit it. Many of us who have shot a can are a little disappointed in the culinary experience. Sure they’re good, but no better than a corn-fed mallard or a pintail that’s stuffed itself with rice for three months. Why all the fuss? Well, the fuss has a Latin name-Vallisneria americana, or wild celery. Canvasbacks are very partial to this plant, and those that dined on it acquired a flavor like no other duck in the world. Wild celery is highly sensitive to changes in water quality, and pollution has eliminated much of it since the market hunting days. At present, your odds of shooting a canvasback that has ordered only from the wild celery menu just aren’t very good.”
Still, compared to the threats facing many wildlife species, the canvasback’s future is bright. That’s because of strong federal regulations and enforcement. It’s because of habitat protection, and a program that effectively funds that protection. And it’s because a committed conservationists – waterfowl hunters and birders – have worked hard on the bird’s behalf. These factors should be a recipe for protecting other wildlife species around the globe.
Canvasbacks are staging in flocks along the Mississippi and other rivers, and soon the large flocks will appear on bays and lakes. Here’s to enjoying the spectacle, and in working to ensure that this beautiful duck remains a part of North America’s natural heritage.